Tales from abroad: Cyprus
Sitting on a plane heading to a completely foreign country should not be the first time you open a guidebook to read about that country. Yet here I was, heading to Cyprus for a month-long study abroad program opening my Lonely Planet guide for the first time. Cyprus, I learned, was currently divided into two halves, one with Greek Cypriots and the other with Turkish Cypriots. The Republic of Cyprus, where I was headed, was a part of the European Union and consisted mostly of Greek Cypriots. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized as a sovereign state only by Turkey, was home to most of the Turkish Cypriots.
The United Nations had to intervene to make peace between the two sides and is currently occupying a buffer zone between them. As I sat on the plane with less than an hour to land, I realized I was entering a country that, until quite recently, had undergone considerable political strife and violence. Excellent.
When I first got to Nicosia, the capital of the island, all the apprehension I had built up during my plane ride disappeared immediately. The area around the University of Nicosia, where I was living, was a lazy, quiet sort of place, and the downtown area was filled with numerous places to eat and shop. The locals were warm and extremely helpful — my second day in Nicosia I had the owner of a small roadside eatery spend 15 minutes helping me decipher the Greek menu there. On the weekends, we went on trips to the tourist-packed beach resorts around the country. We went to the popular Ayia Napa region, one of the hottest European tourist destinations, often called the “Cancun of Europe”; to Paphos, an area famous for archeological ruins; and to Polis, where I had one of the best hiking experiences of my life. Although the weekends, with afternoons spent lazing on beaches and nights at bars watching the FIFA World Cup, were fun, I had some of the most memorable experiences of the trip in Nicosia.
The last divided capital in the world, Nicosia had plenty of opportunities for me to get acquainted with the cultural and political side of the country. I went to numerous art shows and a jazz festival, and ate the traditional “meze,” a sampling of local delicacies. We even went to mass at a Greek orthodox church, which in spite of being completely in Greek and lasting for nearly three hours, was one of the most interesting experiences I had in Cyprus. During our last week in Cyprus, a group of fellow students and I decided to cross the border in Nicosia and visit the Turkish side of the city.
The gateway at the border was decorated almost festively with balloons, streamers, and colorful signs promoting peace between the two sides. We simply showed our passports at the border, walked for a couple minutes, and were on the Turkish side. Contrary to all the fanciful images that my mind had concocted, the city on the other side of the border seemed no different from the one I had just left. We walked among similar looking shops and for the longest time the only difference was that signs that had been in Greek were now in Turkish. When we ate and shopped, however, we were surprised (and quite pleased) to find that the Turkish side was considerably cheaper than the Greek side. We ate a large amount of food on the Turkish side and became especially fond of a dish we decided to name a cheese boat; all it consisted of was local cheese stuffed in boat-shaped pita bread, and it was delicious.
As we walked back across the balloon-filled gateway at night and began to look for a taxi, we noticed an old woman following us. After nearly 10 minutes, we began to get worried and quickened our pace. That was when she called out to us and asked us stop. In broken English, she questioned where we had just come from. We tried walking away, but this woman was persistent. Finally, we told her we had just come back from the Turkish side and she then asked us what we were doing there. Nothing, we tried telling her, we were just tourists and were visiting the area. She shook her head and told us that we should never go there. She told us her house had been there and when the Turkish army had occupied the area she had to leave all her belongings behind and run. She had never been back since. What had been a completely normal day for us had suddenly transformed into something else.
In my last week in Cyprus, the old woman had taught me that I knew very little, if anything, about the sentiments of the people there and the way they felt. To understand a country, you need to understand its people, and I barely touched the tip of the iceberg. One month, I now realize, is too short to be little more than a tourist in a foreign country. I hope to go back to Cyprus one day and truly understand the essence of the island.